A small-scale traditional farmer on the outskirts of Bristol who has been fighting to keep her land out of the hands of housing developers has welcomed new support from the local council but is still uncertain for the future.
Catherine Withers, owner of Yew Tree Farm, a traditional small-holding that is farmed organically on the outskirts of Bristol, has been campaigning against a proposed housing development, as part of new plans in Bristol to turn areas of the Green Belt over to homes.
As the last privately-owned working farm in Bristol, which is home to abundant wildlife due to its traditional organic farming methods, the case has gained support from local wildlife groups, the community and local and national press attention.
Over the summer, the attention led to support from the council itself including the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, who issued a surprise specific statement of support for the farm recently.
“Today I’m feeling so much more positive. The whole council, and the mayor, spoke up for the farm, which was amazing,” said Withers, who said she is still uncertain about the future due to the short-notice tenancy agreement she holds on that part of the farm, and plans by the developer to begin initial scoping works for the housing plots.
“They’re now pushing for us to be removed from the next draft of the local plan. This is due for completion in 2022 but a steering group in early October will be discussing green open spaces.
“In the meantime, the developer Redrow is still planning to come and drill trial pits in January, I haven’t heard anything to the contrary. I just get told what will happen when.”
In a statement, Rees said: “Yew Tree Farm is Bristol’s last working farm. I want it off the potential development list that we inherited – like Brislington Meadows. We'll keep building new homes for Bristolians while evaluating other sites' nature, balancing the housing and ecological crises.”
Withers said she had been campaigning against the plans, which would see 200 homes replace an ancient hay meadow, since 2018. “Back then the rhetoric was very different. Now we realise the ecological crisis we’re in,” she said, adding that the meadows are home to abundant wildlife, including rare adders, skylarks and tree sparrows.
The local plan by Bristol Council allocates land for development and was set to strip Green Belt status from 15 acres of the farm.
“We’d be park-keepers to a housing estate,” said Withers, who said there are footpaths across all of her fields providing easy access to the proposed new homes.
Yew Tree Farm, in the Bedminster Downs area of Bristol, is farmed organically although does not hold a certification as Withers said it is not encouraged under her tenancy agreement.
She has a small herd of cattle, pigs, grows veg and has just planted walnut trees to add further diversity and shelter for the veg patch, selling all her produce to the local community – postcodes she said are among some of the most deprived in Bristol.
“It’s an old-fashioned farm that hasn’t changed since pre-war – the steep hills and the fact we’re in a protected view area means we didn’t get pulled into the ‘spray’ era,” she said.
“I’m reeling from what’s happened, it’s been a place of high stress for a long time. We haven’t been able to plan for the future, but you can’t go on living in limbo,” she said of the looming development threat. “It’s not been a very nice time, but the most exciting thing has been to hear the messages of support.
“Now I know they want us, I’ve offered my services back,” said Withers, who said she will be working with local wildlife groups to bring children and education groups onto the farm.
Despite the fact Yew Tree Farm is now likely to be taken off the planning list, Withers said she has a further worry that her landlord will review her short-lease ‘grazing licence’ for the land in question. This could potentially split up the farm, and mean another farmer who uses non organic practices and artificial fertiliser, could take on the land, she said.
“For half the farm, we could be off within a month,” said Withers, adding that she’s seen her landlords – owners of a London-based investment fund – only “twice in my lifetime”.
“Hopefully they’ll sell it to us. But they could sell the grazing licence onto another farmer who might use loads of fertiliser. I can pay agricultural rates to the landlord – I just want it to stay together.”